Wednesday, March 24, 2010

To a Horse in Pharaoh’s Cavalry

In Shir HaShirim Rabbah, the classical rabbinic midrash on the Song of Songs, the rabbis ask a central question about this Biblical book: Heychan ne’emra? Where was it said? That is, in what historical moment was the Song of Songs originally composed and recited? What was the impulse for the Bible’s most romantic poem, and what was its original context?

As with most midrashic questions, the answer takes the form of a dispute among several rabbis. The first says that the Songs of Songs was originally recited at the splitting of the Red Sea; the second says that it was recited at Sinai; the third associates it with Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting; and the fourth says that Shir HaShirim was a poem recited in the Temple. The midrash does not privilege any one answer over the others, but as I see it, it is clear from its unfolding that the first rabbi, the one who associates Shir HaShirim with the Red Sea, has the most textual support for his claim. Throughout the vast corpus of Shir HaShirim Rabbah, the historical events most commonly discussed are the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea – that is, the events we commemorate on Pesach, the holiday of freedom. And so I cannot help but wonder: What is the connection between Shir HaShirim and the exodus from Egypt? Is it merely that the song describes the reawakening of spring, which is when we celebrate Pesach? Or, as I’d like to suggest, is the midrash moving beyond this seasonal coincidence to make a deeper and more timeless observation about the relationship between romantic love and freedom?

Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa, the sage who posits that the Song of Songs was originally recited at the sea, cites as proof for his claim a particular verse from the poem: “To a horse in Pharaoh’s cavalry have a likened you, my love” (1:9). After all, why would the midrash choose this particular metaphor for the beloved? It’s not the most obvious of compliments, and certainly not one that most women I know would want to receive: “Hey babe, turn around -- your rump reminds me of Pharoah’s horse!” Bar Pappa is suggesting that this strange equestrian metaphor (reminiscent of the illustrations in the Babar books!) is an allusion to the original context in which the Song of Songs was composed, namely at the Red Sea.

Shir HaShirim Rabbah, an exegetical midrash which interprets each verse of the Song of Songs in order, eventually reaches this verse about Pharaoh’s horses, where it offers an interesting take on what exactly happened at the splitting of the sea:

Rabbi Eliezer said: [This is a parable to] a king’s daughter who was taken captive, and her father was about to redeem her, but she was gesturing to her captors and saying to them: I am yours, and I belong to you, and I will follow you. Her father said to her: What is this?! Do you think that I won’t be able to redeem you? Hush up, I hush you!

So too, at the time when Israel was encamped on the sea, “The Egyptians chased after them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea” (Exodus 14:9). And the Israelites were gesturing to the Egyptians out of fear and saying to them: We are yours, and we belong to you, and we will follow you. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to them: What is this?! Do you think I won’t be able to redeem you? Hush up, I hush you. As it is written, “The Lord will fight for you, and you will keep quiet” (Exodus 14:14).

Although the midrash does not bring a proof text, the basis for the claim that the Israelites were gesturing at the Egyptians comes from the Biblical verses between the two that are cited above: “As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses: Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the desert? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Exodus 14: 10-12). The midrash is clearly troubled by the lack of faith that these verses reflect. How could the Israelites speak of their desire to return to Egypt at this most critical historical moment? How dare they say, “It is better for us to serve the Egyptians!” What chutzpah! To resolve this difficulty, the midrash suggests that in fact the Israelites were not expressing a genuine desire to return to Egypt. Rather, they were ingratiating themselves to the Egyptians as a way of protecting themselves in the event that their deliverance were to fail. Just as the king’s daughter feels the need to ingratiate herself to her captors just in case her father does not manage to rescue her, so too did the Israelites feel compelled to curry the favor of the Egyptians just in case God did not manage to transport them safely across the sea.

This midrash exonerates the Israelites, but not entirely. On the one hand, the midrash suggests that they did not really want to return to slavery in Egypt. Nor did they have the chutzpah to complain to Moses that they’d rather serve the Egyptians than anticipate the fate that lay ahead of them. This much is true. But on the other hand, the Israelites did not exactly have perfect faith in God either. On the brink of the exodus, as they stood in that no-man’s-land between the dominion of King of Egypt and the dominion of the King of Kings, they felt the need to secure the good graces of the former in case the latter were not to deliver on His promise. And so they said to Pharoah, “We are yours, and we belong to you” – that is, we are still your slaves, and we still serve you. Too scared of the uncertainty that lay ahead of them, the Israelites held on to a bad relationship, unable to take the risk of opening themselves to what the future had in store.

Unfortunately, this is a predicament that I relate to all too well. How often have I held on to the wrong relationship, determined to remain in the good graces of one who was not right for me merely because I was too scared to move on? This has happened several times over, but the moment I remember as most painful and most searing happened, ironically, just days before Pesach. Like an apple among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. I was standing before an open refrigerator wearing an apron and cleaning out the shelves with a sponge, determined to remove every last trace of Chametz. There, on the top shelf, was a half-rotten apple. “This apple is not in a very good state,” I said to you. “I think I will dispose of it by eating it.” You looked at me with all the love drained from your face, and you said, “If you don’t think that you are good enough to deserve to eat a fresh apple, how am I supposed to respect you enough to love you?” Something about the way you spoke those words to me made me realize subconsciously that it was all over. But the realization was only subconscious. In my mind I held on, against all odds, insisting that I was yours, that I belonged to you, and that I would follow you. As I nearly did—

Two nights later was erev Shabbat; like this year, Shabbat fell out just before the start of Pesach. We sat down to dinner in a fully-kashered and clean home. The candles were flickering behind us, but suddenly I realized that something else was flickering too – no – not flickering, but burning. Burning, all around! The yard behind our apartment was swept up in flames that leapt higher and higher against our ground-floor windows. A forest fire! I gasped, shocked and immobilized. And then what happened? I remember, but it is not a story that I can bear to tell. In the Many Worlds interpretation of our lives, who is to say which account matters most? Certainly on Pesach, the emphasis is not on what actually happened, but on the retelling of the story. And so this is the story I retell myself each year: Seeing the flames, you reached for the phone to dial 101, and I jolted myself into motion and bolted out the door. I ran, and ran, and ran – as fast and as far as I could. I did not know where I was running to, or what I was running from. The Talmud discusses what a person is permitted to save from a burning building on Shabbat, but at that moment I had no thought of saving anything, not even myself. I think that part of me realized (or part of me realizes now) that unless I ran—unless I made my exodus during that fiery plague—I would never have the courage to leave again.

That year on Shabbat Chol HaMoed I chanted the Songs of Songs in shul with a heavy heart, choking back tears. Upon my bed at night, I sought the one I love. I sought, but found him not. I must rise and roam the town, through the streets and through the squares. I must seek the one I love. My Pesach was not a feast of freedom, but of bitter salt water tears. Later people would tell me that we were lucky to get out when we did, but at the time, I could only look back longingly: “It would have been better to be in the fleshpots of that relationship that to die in this desert of loneliness,” I thought during the empty nights.

To a horse in Pharaoh’s cavalry have I likened you, my love. In years to come I would joke about this metaphor with other boyfriends, other men. Unaware of the parable about the king's daughter, I did not realize the gravity of what lay behind it. Now I do. Pesach, as contemporary rabbis like to say in their sermons, is about ridding ourselves of the Chametz inside of us. But as this parable teaches us, Pesach is also about learning to let go of the people in our lives who are not good for us, or whose hearts have already let us go. This is, of course, a very risky prospect. We do not always know that there is someone else waiting around the corner to deliver us, and perhaps there isn’t. Or perhaps he is waiting, but not in a bright pillar of flame but in the vague uncertainty of an amorphous cloud. We cannot know. The sea might split for us, or it might not. We might find someone else who is right for us—a prospect that is as difficult for God to arrange as the splitting of the sea—or we might not. But we cannot look back to what was before, and we cannot try to win the favor of someone who no longer loves us. We must remember what Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa tells us -- that the greatest love poem in the Bible was recited at the Red Sea, in that moment of uncertainty and terror, as the Israelites fled from Egypt believing, even if not yet consciously, that the future was one of promise.